Recently, there has been much ado about China’s aircraft carriers. CV-16, known as the Liaoning, was launched in 2012 to much fanfare, and CV-17 will probably enter service within a few years. Until this point, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had not operated any carriers. CV-16 and CV-17 will allow China to join an elite group of nations which operate carriers, a significant step towards China’s goal of asserting itself as a global power capable of influencing world affairs and challenging other nations on the high seas. At least, that is how the matter is often portrayed.
However, to presume that all aircraft carriers are created equal would be a fatal oversimplification. Some carriers, such as Brazil’s São Paulo, are worn-down vessels hardly capable of sailing under their own power let alone launching and retrieving aircraft under combat conditions. The US’s Nimitz-class supercarriers, on the other hand, are 100,000-ton technological marvels whose operating costs exceed the GDPs of some sovereign states. So, to lump all carrier-owning nations together is to miss the point, as carrier effectiveness varies vastly depending on the specifications of a given design.
CV-16, which is named “Liaoning” after the Chinese province, was formerly an Admiral Kuznetsov-class “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” purchased from the Russian Navy. The Kuznetsov-class is so designated by the Russians because it boasts 12 P-700 anti-ship cruise missiles and a staggering 192 3K95 short-range surface-to-air missiles. The Liaoning, however, does away with this extravagant armament in favor of a simpler and lighter point defense system based on Type 1130 rotary-cannon CIWS mounts and TY-90 short-range surface-to-air missiles. The Liaoning is currently deployed as a training carrier, allowing Chinese pilots to accustom themselves to carrier operations and test the associated equipment. CV-17 will be the first domestically-produced Chinese aircraft carrier. While CV-17 is not yet complete, its hull is clearly also based on the Kuznetsov-class as well, meaning the Liaoning and CV-17 will be very similar. The Kuznetsov-based design utilized for both the Liaoning and CV-17 is referred to as “Type 001A.”
Of course, the most important capability provided by an aircraft carrier is the aircraft themselves. The Liaoning embarks around twenty J-15 Flying Shark fighters, which are copies of the Russian Su-33 carrier aircraft (plus indigenous Chinese avionics). The J-15 is a remarkably large aircraft with good aerodynamic performance and a high turn rate thanks to its massive wing area and aerodynamic features such as pronounced leading edge root extensions. The Su-33, on which the J-15 is based, was originally designed as an air superiority fighter, but both the Su-33 and J-15 are capable of employing a variety of missiles and bombs in addition to intercepting other aircraft. The J-15 is also notable for its high internal fuel load, which largely precludes the need for external drop tanks. One price of the J-15’s large wing area and fuel storage is a remarkably large radar signature. Another drawback is that fewer J-15s can be fit in a given space relative to smaller naval fighters such as the MiG-29K Fulcrum or the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The J-15’s thrust is hampered somewhat by its Russian AL-31F3 engines, which were fitted to the original Su-33. Chinese engine manufacturers have been working to produce a domestic replacement, the WS-10, for quite some time. The highest-performance WS-10 variants exceed the thrust of the AL-31F3, but the WS-10 has been plagued by reliability issues and so far has not been spotted in carrier use. This is probably because ski ramp takeoffs are remarkably unforgiving for an unreliable engine. The failure of a single engine during the critical stages of a ski ramp takeoff means a loss of half the plane’s thrust, failure to exceed stall speed, and subsequent loss of the airframe to the sea.
As far as getting the J-15s airborne, there are multiple ways to launch and recover aircraft at sea. The largest and most capable aircraft carriers generally utilize Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) landing systems. Catapult-launching helps aircraft gather speed during takeoff, which means more lift and thus heavier takeoff weights (ie: more weapons and fuel). Another popular method is Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) in which aircraft take off without catapults and thus launch at lower speeds. All currently operating STOBAR aircraft carriers are Russian designs which have a “ski ramp” at the bow to give aircraft more altitude during takeoff.
The Type 001A is a STOBAR carrier, as evidenced by the large bow ski ramp. Of course, STOBAR does offer some benefits compared to CATOBAR, the largest one being the absence of a complex, energy-guzzling catapult system to maintain and power. This means STOBAR vessels are theoretically much easier to maintain and operate than their CATOBAR counterparts. A STOBAR ramp and runway is also much easier to design than a catapult, which takes extensive engineering work and testing to perfect. China has plans to build CATOBAR carriers in the future, as evidenced by their CATOBAR testing facilities, but this technology is likely at least a decade away from operational use.
However, STOBAR has drawbacks, some of which derive from the aforementioned lack of aid during takeoff. First of all, STOBAR launching probably reduces payload the payload of China’s J-15s. Actually, whether or not STOBAR has a drastic effect on Su-33-type aircraft is hotly debated; some sources claim that the J-15’s payload is severely reduced by China’s STOBAR carriers while others assert that the J-15 is capable of ramp takeoffs at maximum load with a typical headwind. The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle, with modest-to-light takeoff weight restrictions under normal circumstances. This means that the J-15s will probably be launching sub-optimal fuel and weapons loads, inhibiting performance somewhat, especially in the long-range strike role, which tends to require heavy cruise missiles and a full fuel load. This could be addressed by the usage of buddy refueling, which the J-15 is capable of, but using aircraft for refueling would remove them from the combat rotation, which would be a significant capability loss for the already-small 20-aircraft wing.
Nevertheless, the largest drawback of the STOBAR configuration is not its effect on high-thrust fighters but its incompatibility with slower and heavier aircraft. Some of the most important components of an American carrier wing are its four E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft (soon to be replaced by five E-2D Hawkeyes), which are propellor-driven. AEW&C aircraft have large air search radars which provide far better situational awareness and range than the radars mounted aboard any fighter. Thus, fighters cooperating with an AEW&C aircraft have a distinct advantage in terms of early detection, which can be critical. AEW&C aircraft can also serve as airborne battle managers, vectoring fighters to the correct locations and coordinating the activities of the air wing. Because AEW&C aircraft are generally designed with a lower-performance utility airframe to support the large radar and for longer loiter times, they generally lack the thrust-to-weight ratio necessary for take-off without a catapult. China does not appear to have a carrier-borne AEW&C aircraft under development, and this may be one of the primary reasons.
STOBAR carriers such as the Type 001A also tend to embark less aircraft because sloped ramp runways take up space which cannot be used for aircraft parking. Combine this with the large size of the J-15 as well as the middling displacement of CV-16 and CV-17 and you get a small wing of only twenty aircraft. In the event that a handful of aircraft were grounded for maintenance, another handful were lost to enemy fire, and the rest were rearming/refueling, the Liaoning-class’s deployable air wing quickly diminishes to less than ten (and perhaps less than five) aircraft, at which point it may no longer be able to function effectively due to lack of escorts for the strike-configured aircraft and lack of buddy refuelers. Thus, while the 20-J-15 wing should be adequate for strike missions or low-intensity combat, cracks may emerge in high-tempo operations, where attrition, replenishment, and maintenance would take a toll.
It is also virtually impossible for China to field a constantly deployed carrier force in the near future. It is a general rule of carrier aviation that a number of carriers will be undergoing maintenance and conducting training for each carrier deployed. For the US Navy, the practice is three carriers in various stages of preparation for each carrier deployed. Assuming the PLAN roughly follows this deployment scheme, and there is no reason to believe the PLAN could achieve a higher turnaround rate than the US Navy, China will not have multiple carriers operating at any given time like the US does, as there will be periods when neither carrier is ready. Rather, China will probably employ its carrier similar to how the Russians use the Kuznetsov, saving deployments for times of need, such as a confrontation in the South China Sea or for strikes against militant groups.
One last factor to consider is that of pilot skill. The decision to devote CV-16 to full-time training operations is telling: it illustrates how the PLAN has a long way to go in terms of grooming skilled naval aviators. Of course, this is not unusual; all navies which operate carriers tends to have initial difficulties training and keeping a pool of pilots who are capable of consistently executing the exceptionally difficult takeoff and landing maneuvers required for carrier aviation. It will take a long time for the PLAN to get their pilots to a high level of proficiency. Crew training is also an important factor, as the operation of an aircraft carrier combines traditional aviation tasks such as refueling and rearming with the perils of operating aboard a cramped ship in close proximity to other aircraft. Many of the carrier’s systems themselves, such as the ship’s massive engines and the arresting cables, are also prone to failure, especially when insufficiently maintained.
In conclusion, there are many differences between China’s work-in-progress carrier force and those of other nations such as the United States. China’s two carriers are certainly a step forward for the PLAN’s global power projection capabilities, but their combat power and impact on global affairs will certainly not approach that of a US carrier strike group and will probably lag behind the similarly-sized carrier forces of the French, British, and Russians, who are more experienced. Nevertheless, the Type 001A vessels will certainly be menacing to other lesser military powers such as Vietnam, Taiwan, The Philippines, etc., and their presence in a contested area would undeniably be a powerful bargaining tool. Further, with CATBOBAR technology in the pipeline and the possibility of China procuring more than two Type 001As, the PLAN could easily become the world’s second-most-powerful carrier force in a decade or two, given the necessary resources. Certainly, the story of Chinese carrier aviation has only just begun, and it is undoubtedly one to watch going forward.